We tend to associate football clubs with quite a lot of things, besides the nation’s favourite sport. When Forest Green Rovers re-launched themselves as the world’s first vegan side back in October 2015, they existed a far cry away from the upper echelons of the Premier League, where finances continue to spiral, and sustainability is far from the top of the short-term agenda.
That all changed over the summer, as the club were promoted for the first time in their history to the Football League after triumphing 3-1 at Wembley over Tranmere Rovers, and in doing so secured professional status.
Now, the UK’s smallest football club, which exists in a rural setting near to Bristol, stands as a symbol of what could be achieved if their counterparts embraced their stance on sustainability.
Everything on sale at matches, from the burgers to the locally-sourced beer and cider, is suitable for vegans. It goes to extreme lengths – you can’t even have cow’s milk with your tea on the terraces at the club’s home ground, New Lawn.
That diet stretches to the playing staff as well, though admittedly the club is a little more lax on its policies with staff outside of working hours – some players were even caught on a rebellious trip to the local Greggs store during the early days of the culture shift.
In itself, the poses an interesting experiment for sports scientists and dietitians – should the club’s players perform to a consistently high or otherwise impressive level, how much of that can be attributed to the food and liquids they consume whilst training?
The club could also prove a world-leading exercise in sustainable energy, having explored several eco-friendly options to assist with the day-to-day running of its operations.
More mainstream schemes such as solar panels on the stadium roof are underpinned by more potentially ground-breaking exercises, such as a low-energy floodlight to improve the energy footprint for evening matches.
Pitch irrigation is a priority, with the club aiming to use a mixture of rainwater, spring water and water collected from drains for pitch maintenance, making it independent from the mains water supply and promoting a sustainable cycle.
It would be easy to suggest all football clubs should adopt this stance and reduce their carbon footprints, particularly those at the highest level, but the simple answer is – that’s not entirely feasible in the short term.
Whilst clubs should be aspiring to be eco-friendly, the most established clubs would need to invest in a significant shift in their infrastructure, culture and operations, the like of which is difficult whilst trying to maintain relative operational and competitive stability. The benefit in this instance for FGR is their rise through the footballing pyramid from humble beginnings – think evolution, not revolution.
Small changes are possible in the short-term though – player diets can be amended in a heartbeat (though clubs may be reluctant until it is established whether there are any associated benefits or not) and energy-efficient alternatives for stadium lighting can make a huge difference in the long run.
In the meantime though, credit is due to Forest Green for setting a positive example for the rest of the footballing world to follow.